prosaicview

Wasting a Lockdown

The first 21 days have been frittered away by the Union government. The remaining period should be utilised properly.

Whether India should have imposed a national lockdown when relatively few cases of Coronavirus had been reported vis-a-vis other countries or should have waited is not a decision worth revisiting. Whether the lockdown will only shift the curve towards the right, instead of actually flattening it for the long term, is also not important any more given the decision has already been taken by the Prime Minister after, I would assume, due consideration.

What is more important to understand as we move into the second phase of the lockdown is that the union government largely wasted the first 21 days of the national lockdown and needs to ensure that the next 19 days are more productively utilised.

Let us look at five specific areas that need urgent solutions and action plans…

Coordination and Information Flow: Despite periodic reports that the union government has set up a war room monitoring the situation, and that officers in Delhi from a range of ministries are in constant touch with counterparts in states, the fact is that in practice the lack of information flow is glaringly apparent. Despite the PM’s two video conferences with state CMs, the latter were fairly clueless about his plan to extend the lockdown till May 3, just as they were clueless when he announced the first lockdown till April 14.

In both cases, the meetings had ended with the CMs letting the PM know about their views – but without getting an insight into his thinking process. This can be seen in the fact that almost all states waited a day or two before announcing lockdowns in their states for a particular period before the PM gave his lockdown instructions. In the first case, practically every state has announced a lockdown till March 31 and then the PM announced just two days later that the entire nation would observe a lockdown till April 14. In the lockdown extension case too, 10 states had announced a lockdown till April 30 only to understand a day later that the PM wanted it till May 3. In both cases, the PM’s address caught chief ministers of BJP states as well as non-BJP states by surprise.

More worrying is the fact that even ministries within the union government seemed to be clueless about the PM’s plans. The Home Ministry came out with an extremely sketchy guideline for states when the first lockdown of 21 days was announced. In the case of lockdown extension, it was not even prepared with a revised lockdown to be released immediately after the PM’s speech. The revised guidelines were released the next day.

Worse, even the revised lockdown has left a lot of ambiguity though it is better than the first one. Finally, the Railway Ministry seemed to be completely out of sync with the lockdown extension plans. It was happily booking tickets from April 14 onwards and only belatedly announced that passenger train services would not resume on April 15, after the PM made his speech. The railways have now announced that it will refund tickets booked till the period of the lockdown extension.

The Migrant Labour problem:  While the first announcement by the PM and the first guideline issued by the Home Ministry completely ignored the problem of migrant labour and left individual states to deal with it for the first few days of chaos, it is apparent that the union government has not spent much time thinking about them even while extending the lockdown. Reports of restive workers trying desperately to get home, whether they are stuck in Delhi or Mumbai, have  already been highlighted in the media.  Even various chief ministers have voiced their concerns. Some states have even managed to bring their workers back from other states – for example, Gujarat. Others have been asking the central government to devise a proper strategy or let them run special buses.

The railways have claimed that they have converted wagons into special quarantine facilities. These wagons could have been used to run special, point-to-point trains that would carry migrant labour, after they have been properly screened, back to their states. The states, in turn, could have devised ways in coordinating with the center, to screen them a second time once they disembark, and then make special arrangements to get them back to their districts.

Migrant labour, stuck in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore or any other city, but with food and money running out is not a solution. Even if the state governments had the resources to feed and shelter them for the whole 40 days, it would not help the Coronavirus fight unless they were being regularly screened to see that none of them had picked up an infection.

The essential goods problem: While the new guideline relaxes the definition of essential goods that can be manufactured, it still retains a lot of ambiguity and also fails in recognising that the definition changes with time. For example, if there is only a five-day lockdown, say, then just groceries and perhaps perishables are enough. Make it 21 days of work from home and you need other things – electronic accessories for your mobile devices and computers, stationery for printing, some kitchen utensils that you need to replace, electrical stuff like switches and bulbs that need replacement. The list of essential services also moves up as the time of lockdown increases especially as summer sets in. While standalone electricians and plumbers have been allowed to ply their trade in the new guidelines, neither would be useful particularly if you do not have supplies of the stuff that needs to be replaced or those shops are not open.

The Health Equipment Issue: An extended lockdown serves no purpose if the time is not used to rapidly build up capacities and facilities for treatment, ramp up supply of essentials like PPEs, and development of test kits, etc. While states are largely responsible for healthcare, the union government plays two crucial roles. One, it creates policies – from procurement of imported stuff to higher production incentives and tax breaks for domestic manufacturers – to improve the stockpile and ensure it reaches the places it needs to. The union government has been tardy in this respect and there is also no central monitoring to see whether test kits and PPEs are reaching the places where there are shortages. This needs to change if the country needs to fight the pandemic properly.

A Plan for the Post Lockdown Economy: The union government was fairly slow in setting up a task force for setting up the economy. And there seems little evidence that any serious planning is taking place about how to exit the lockdown with a proper plan that can kick start any sort of economic growth and not leave it to luck and chance. After the initial package – which had multiple flaws and escape clauses – for the corporate sector and the poor, no major announcement has been made about substantive policy steps that will come into force post the lockdown to help the economy get going again. The thing is that corporations, farmers and others need to start preparing for a post lockdown world and the best way for them would be to get information early about policy changes and incentives. Waiting till the last moment serves no purpose. Uncertainty is worst and the government needs to make clear what its plans are for fixing the economy. Merely exhorting corporations, which are bleeding money, not to lay off workers or cut pay and advising citizens to help out the poor does not help remove anxieties. The finance minister, the home minister, the commerce minister, the labour minister and others in the team need to be far more visible – and far more audible.

A final point: Various ministers and ministries keep assuring citizens that there is enough food stocks and other essentials in the country for all eventualities. They need to understand that food stocks in storage is useless if the starving people do not receive them. Distribution of food and other essentials to the poor has been a major problem during the first 21 days of the lockdown. The government needs to ensure that this does not remain the case for the remaining period.

Prosenjit Datta

Prosenjit Datta

Prosenjit Datta is former editor of Businessworld and Business Today magazines

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